We’ve written about the unique confluence of issues that contributed to Shazam 2’s failure, however the movie is not alone. In fact, if we broaden the scope out to the whole first fiscal quarter of 2023, superheroes movies at large are having a rough go of it. In February, Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania initially looked like another success story for Marvel Studios. In spite of dire reviews that took to task the third Ant-Man movie’s visual aesthetic (or lack thereof) and exhausting narrative formula, the pic opened to $106.1 million, nearly 30 percent up from 2018’s Ant-Man and the Wasp, which premiered to $75.8 million. Another win for Disney, right?
Not so fast. It turns out critics weren’t the only ones largely burned by or burned out on Marvel’s bag of tricks. While Ant-Man 3 opened huge, it also dropped like a stone, falling an eye-popping 69.9 percent in the North American box office. Its second weekend gross of $31.9 million is almost identical to the 2018 movie’s second weekend take of $29 million. It also marks the seventh MCU flick since 2021 to drop north of 65 percent in its second weekend (a dubious feat none of the pre-Phase 4 Marvel movies accomplished).
As of press time, the film’s box office run is winding down with a current cume of $464 million, more than $150 million less than Ant-Man and the Wasp back in Phase Three. In other words, it’s perhaps not shocking that Disney is rethinking Marvel Studios’ current strategy.
There are of course factors and narratives that could be applied to both pictures’ struggles, not the least of which is that moviegoing habits are still in a state of flux during these post-pandemic years. Huge drops, even for Marvel, is the new normal, as goes this rationale. However, while superhero movies were the undisputed king of the hill for almost the entirety of the 2010s, and certainly when Spider-Man: No Way Home proved in 2021 that younger moviegoers did not fear Omicron nearly so much as trade reports suggested, an unexpected trend has emerged over the last 12 months.
The three biggest global hits of last year were all franchise films, but none of them were superhero movies, and all enjoyed second weekend drops below 60 percent. Avatar: The Way of Water, Top Gun: Maverick, and Jurassic World Dominion each cleared $1 billion and towered over even Marvel’s biggest event, a feat which, when excluding the pandemic year of 2020, only happened twice in the last decade: 2017 and 2015, years when Disney had Star Wars movies to take the crowns in a period before that franchise’s fandom was defined by division and toxicity. By contrast in the 2020s, Star Wars has largely been relegated to Disney+ streaming content which according to third-party services have endured a diminishing number of viewers over the last four years; meanwhile Marvel has also flooded Disney+ with TV shows that saw interest erode by the time She-Hulk and Ms. Marvel rolled around this past summer.
Hence what makes the first quarter of 2023 so remarkable. The studios with the biggest superhero libraries—Disney and WB—pivoted hard toward streaming due to the strategies of previous corporate regimes (both of which imploded in 2022). Conversely, the studios that still invested in maintaining some degree of variety in their theatrical portfolios have seen success. While franchises across a range of genres—horror, action, and sports—had a great March, Universal Pictures also recently saw sequential wins in the horror genre with original titles like M3GAN, Knock at the Cabin, and Cocaine Bear, two of which veered toward the kind of campy “niche” most studios have eschewed in wide releases in recent years. Meanwhile Sony Pictures’ A Man Called Otto, a modest feel-good movie about aging that starred Tom Hanks, quietly grossed $109 million on a $50 million budget.